by Herman Melville
Billy Budd Theme of Sin
It is unclear whether or not anyone sins in Billy Budd. Sin is an unambiguous word. It means that an action is fundamentally wrong. In the novel, however, everyone's actions seem to be in part motivated by good and in part motivated by evil, in part in their control and in part not. Yet, as a reader, there is an enormous desire to declare some characters evil and others good. Whether or not any single action can be called a sin, the idea of sin pervades the pages of Billy Budd and the fear of sin is a huge motivating factor for many of the characters.
Questions About Sin
- The rightness or wrongness of many actions in the novel seems to be ambiguous. Does anyone sin in the novel?
- Is Claggart's sin an action or a state of mind? That is to say, is his sin envy or is it falsely accusing Billy?
- To what extent is the idea of sin controlled by how the narrator portrays events? To what extent is it related to the events themselves?
- What is the relationship between sin and agency in the novel? If characters do not have control over their actions, is it possible for them to sin?
Chew on This
Claggart's sin is not accusing Billy Budd; it is refusing to admit to his envy and attempting to master it.
As the narrator presents it, the only character capable of sinning in the novel is Captain Vere, because he is the only character presented as being in control of his actions.